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On Walkabout At: Nikko, Japan

Basic Information

Narrative

For anyone visiting Tokyo there is plenty of areas around the city that are worth taking a day trip to check out.  However, for those with time for only one day trip while visiting Tokyo the place I highly recommend checking out is Nikko National Park.  This National Park is located to the north of the city and is home to beautiful mountain scenery and the historic Toshogu Shrine:


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To travel to Nikko my wife and I took a morning train from Ueno Station in Tokyo and within an hour and a half we were in Nikko.  The train ride was actually quite nice as half the train journey goes through the populated outskirts of Tokyo before entering into the green mountains where Nikko is located.  The actual city of Nikko itself is not much to look at since it a town of 90,000+ people that caters to the tourists that arrive here to visit the area’s various attractions:

This small city though is backdropped by some beautiful mountains:

Here is a closer look at one of these mountains that soar to altitudes above —- feet:

Seeing these beautiful mountains made me want to go hiking up one of them, but unfortunately I just didn’t have the time for such an undertaking.  From the city we did walk to Nikko National Park.  On the way to the park we passed by the Shinkyo Bridge which means “sacred bridge” in Japanese.  This bridge is considered one of the most beautiful in all of Japan:

This bridge was constructed in 1636 across the Daiya River that flows below.  Legend has it that a hermit settled Nikko and was carried across the Daiya River by two serpents. During Japan’s feudal past, only the Emperor was supposedly allowed to cross this bridge into the Toshogu Shrine area.

If you can believe this you have to pay to walk across the bridge since it is not part of Nikko National Park, but instead owned by a local shrine.  My wife and I did not want to pay what would have been the equivalent of $15 to cross the bridge, but we were able to take pictures at the very beginning of the bridge:

Fortunately there is now a modern bridge that doesn’t charge an outrageous fee for people walking to the National Park to cross.  On the other side of the river are signs welcoming visitors to Nikko National Park:

Besides being a National Park, Nikko also has the honor of being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage area:

The walk towards the temples and shrines is a pleasant one as my wife and I followed the stone path towards the heart of the park:

The first thing we came upon was the Rinnoji Temple:

This temple was constructed in the 8th century by the monk Shodo Shonin who introduced Buddhism to the Nikko area.  Just like the Shinkyo Bridge it costs a fee to enter the temple as well, but if you buy the combination ticket at the park entrance you can enter most fee areas in the park.  Having been to many other Buddhist temples before in Asia I found Rinnoji to be more of a theme park temple instead of an authentic temple:

From the temple my wife and I then passed under this very large stone tori gate:

This tori gate was constructed in 1618 and is 9 meters high.  It is constructed of 15 different stone pieces that were made to be earthquake proof due to the flexibility of the joints.  Since its construction no earthquake has toppled the tori gate yet which is evidence of the brilliance of the engineers that constructed it four centuries ago.

Next to the tori gate there was a large courtyard dominated by this five-storied pagoda:

This pagoda was originally constructed in 1650 and is 36 meters high.  It burned down in 1815 and was rebuilt in 1818.  All around thee Toshogu Shrine area stone lanterns of various sizes could be found:

Something else that is really scenic about the shrine and temple complex is its large cedar trees:

These cedar trees were planted approximately 400 years ago by Matsudaira Masatsuna, who was a feudal lord who had served Tokugawa Ieyasu and donated the trees to the Toshugu Shrine after Ieyasu’s death.  The trees today grow all around the Nikko area and are quite beautiful to see.

Here is a old stone pagoda lantern backdropped by one of these large cedar trees:

Here is the entrance to the Toshogu Shrine called the Yomeimon Gate which inside is where arguably Japan’s greatest ruler Tokugawa Ieyasu is buried:

Here is a brief history of Tokugawa Ieyasu from the Nikko website:

Ieyasu Tokugawa was born in the warring states period. He survived the chaos, and unified entire the country. Ieyasu was assigned as Seii-taishogun (Great generalissimo) in 1603 and opened the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo (Tokyo). He watched the whole nation even after he retired. Ieyasu left last instruction, which was about after the death.

“Enshrine my dead body in Mt. Kuno (His hometown in Shizuoka prefecture) for the first year of the death. (Omission) And built a small shrine in Nikko and enshrine me as the God. I will be the guardian of Japan.”

Ieyasu was dead on April 17th, 1616, when he was 75 years old. Shrine was built in Nikko and divine designation “Tosho-Daigongen” was given by Imperial court. He was enshrined in accordance with his last will.

For those that have seen the American mini-series Shogun starring Richard Chamberlain, this series was a historical fiction based on Tokugawa Ieyasu.  The book Samurai William by Giles Milton is a great historical biography about the Englishman William Adams who Richard Chamberlain’s character in Shogun was based on.  William Adams had washed up on the shores of Japan due to a shipwreck and would eventually become a key confidant of Tokugawa Ieyasu and even led naval merchant fleets around Asia in the name of Tokugawa.  The book is a great read which I highly recommend for those interested in learning more about Japanese history.  Tokugawa Ieyasu’s original shrine at Nikko was actually pretty simple since he was not someone who liked to flash his wealth.

However, his heirs did not have the military success that Ieyasu had to legitimize their rule.  So they began to deify Ieyasu in an attempt to create a God like figure to legitimize their rule.  Thus shrines were constructed around the country to deify Ieyasu like the one in Tokyo’s Ueno Park.  His final resting place at Nikko was thus converted to become the elaborately decorated site it is today by his grandson Iemitsu in 1637.  It is believed that 15,000 craftsmen worked for two years to redecorate the shrine into what is seen today.

Trying to get through the Yomeimon Gate today can be challenge because the shrine complex gets absolutely swamped with tourists and it was a shoulder to shoulder effort by my wife and I to push our way through the gate:

All around the shrine elaborate decorations like this gold lion can be seen:

There is also a variety of famous wood carvings such as this one that depicts the three monkeys of hear no evil, speak no evil, and see no evil fame:

Here is another famous wood carving of a sleeping cat that is amazingly life like when seen:

The cat was carved by a master craftsman named Jingorou Hidari  The symbolism of the cat is that the cat would normally eat the sparrow that is carved on the backside of the cat.  However, since the cat is sleeping the two are able to coexist.  This is means that the wars that once plagued Japan before Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the country are now over and peace has come to the country.

The shrine complex also has a very large supply of Japanese alcohol enshrined here as well:

Here is a bronze bell backdropped by a pagoda:

To get to the main shrine area where Ieyasu’s tomb is located we next had to pass through the Karamon Gate that was of course elaborately decorated:

Inside the gate and in front of the actual tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu is this simple Buddhist temple that unlike the rest of the shrine complex is not elaborately decorated:

The building is constructed in the typical Buddhist architecture that likes to blend in with the surrounding nature.  The inside of the temple is quite simple as well where the Tokugawa family seal can be seen hanging above it:

During feudal times this building is where Ieyasu’s armor, swords, and official documents were kept.  Located behind the temple is where the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu is located:

Unlike the rest of the shrine complex the actual area around the tomb is not lavishly decorated and only has this small alter in front of it:

Here is a picture of the tomb itself that is backdropped by Nikko’s beautiful trees:

The Toshogu Shrine complex can seem to be a bit gaudy due to its elaborate decorations, but Ieyasu’s tomb is located in an area that doesn’t need elaborate decorations due to its beautiful natural setting that is a worthy final resting place for Japan’s greatest ruler.

Conclusion

As I mentioned earlier in the posting a trip to the Nikko and the Toshogu Shrine makes for a great day trip from Tokyo.  For those with more time the Nikko area can easily make for a multi-day trip due to not only its cultural treasures such as the Toshogu Shrine, but it natural wonders as well.  The area is famous in Japan for its rugged mountains, its beautiful lakes, as well as its hot springs. The popularity of the place does cause Nikko to become crowded at times, but despite the crowds I still recommend Nikko as a place for first time visitors to Japan to go and check out.

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